Jay Zemanek has been skateboarding since he was eight years old.
Back in 1986 in Red Deer, Alberta, there was no such thing as a skate park. For Zemanek and his friends, skateboarding meant getting creative on bumpy driveways and rocky sidewalks.
Unless you had the means to travel to Free Wheelin’ Skateboards in Calgary, skateboards were purchased at stores like Zellers and K-Mart, and they were terrible.
Fast forward to today on Vancouver Island, where Zemanek has lived for 14 years. Specialty skate shops are commonplace. Expensive skate parks are being built in small communities like Cedar.
Over those 14 years, Zemanek has witnessed the evolution of skateboarding on the Island. Children are now picking up skateboarding at a young age in the same way they pick up traditional sports such as baseball or soccer.
In 1986, the idea of a small town in Canada ponying up the money for a shiny new skate park would seem laughable. Skateboarders were still stereotyped as stoners, vandals, and drop outs.
“There were the skateboarders and then there were the jocks,” says Zemanek. “These younger guys don’t know what it’s like to get chased down by a car full of jocks.”
Zemanek moved to Victoria in 2001 and now lives in Nanaimo. As well as being a lifelong skateboarder, Zemanek is also the general manager of Island Riders Boardshop.
The major difference between the current skate scene on Vancouver Island compared to 10 or 15 years ago is the acceptance from the general public, he says. It has helped energize skateboarding’s burst in popularity. The more people are skateboarding, the higher the demand for new skate parks.
“Another big difference these days is that skate parks are promoted as youth activity parks, so it’s easier to get funding and land,” says Zemanek.
He has watched the construction of new skate parks not only in Nanaimo and Victoria, but smaller communities such as Courtenay, Port Alberni, and Chemainus.
Skateboarding’s new-found acceptance combined with the construction of new skate parks has produced a generation of kids who are choosing skateboarding as their sport of choice.
“The jocks are now the skateboarders,” says Zemanek.
Instead of learning how to skateboard on driveways and city streets where they risk fines, kids can learn to skate on pristine, $500k skate parks.
“The new parks on the Island are super cool. It seems like they have been using smoother concrete for all the new parks,” says Shay Sandiford, a 17-year-old from Courtenay.
Sandiford has been skating since he was six years old. Today he’s sponsored by some of the biggest names in skateboarding, like Bones Wheels, Darkstar Skateboards, Emerica, LRG clothing, and more.
Most skaters view skateboarding as more than an activity or pasttime—they view it as a way of life. For Sandiford, it is also his career.
“I am lucky enough to be sponsored and call skateboarding my job. It’s amazing to know how many people support me as well as skateboarding in general. I am still in disbelief that skateboarding is the way I make money,” says Sandiford.
With skateboarding’s increasing popularity, corporate skate shops such as West 49 and Zumiez have popped up all over Canada. Zemanek is adamant about the importance of supporting locally owned shops over corporately owned shops.
“Here’s the difference: we’re skateboarders. We are the ones contributing to the scene and we are the ones that care about it. If skateboarding died off in popularity, they would close down. If we woke up tomorrow and the new thing was stand up paddle boards, we would still be open selling skateboards,” says Zemanek. “We are the ones getting in the fight for new skate parks. For the other shops, it is just about numbers, profit growth, and margins.”
Now 37 years old, Zemanek has watched the skate scene on the Island evolve in more ways than just popularity. Zemanek has noticed another major change: “It’s the comradery between different skate scenes on the Island which is mostly due to social media. It used to be completely segregated. There was a Port Alberni crew, a Victoria crew, Nanaimo, Campbell River, and Courtenay. Now it’s just one giant family.”
Gratitude for the sport is a common theme when talking to both Sandiford and Zemanek.
“Skateboarding has impacted my life in an unbelievable way. It has brought me around the world and allowed me to meet amazing people that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet without skateboarding,” says Sandiford.
“Skateboarding has saved my life more than once. For one, growing up it kept me out of trouble,” says Zemanek.
Popular or not, skateboarding has always been unique in its ability to bring people together, says Zemanek.
“It’s a brotherhood. A sisterhood. You can go anywhere in the world, meet up with a group of skateboarders, and instantly you have a place to stay and a bond that no other sport can give you,” says Zemanek.